Tuesday, February 2, 2010

ESPN's Studio Disaster Now A Shining Star

Note: Leaving this column up for comments on the Monday start of NASCAR Now. The one hour show returns next Monday with host Allen Bestwick. His panelists will be Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Craven.

It was 2007 when ESPN thought it would be a good idea to take Connecticut lawyer Erik Kuselias and Urban Radio host Doug Banks and try to pass them off as NASCAR experts.

Unfortunately, they were going to be co-hosting the only daily NASCAR news and interview show on national TV. The results were disastrous.

Banks had no experience not only with NASCAR, but he had never been involved in a national TV series before. His problems were more with reading the Teleprompter than understanding NASCAR. It had been quite clear from the start that he had no racing knowledge of any kind.

Click here to read the TDP column titled "Where in the NASCAR world is Doug Banks?" Less than four months after his debut, Banks was silently released from his hosting duties. He was never seen at ESPN again.

Ryan Burr became the new co-host of NASCAR Now. Luckily, Burr had come over from ESPNEWS where he had plenty of experience with interviews and reporting on various sports. Burr never pretended to know NASCAR, but his professionalism and calm demeanor on the air kept the ship from sinking.

Meanwhile, Kuselias had by now upset some of the biggest names in the sport with his arrogant interviews and incredible ignorance of NASCAR history. Click here to read "Culture clash explodes on NASCAR Now." Reality and hype were on a collision course and the defining moment of this TV series was about to happen.

That came courtesy of a gentleman being interviewed via satellite from his race shops in Concord, North Carolina. His name is Rick Hendrick. Throughout the live NASCAR Now interview, Kuselias asked forceful and pointed questions as if Hendrick was at a deposition and Kuselias was representing the other side. Hendrick never flinched and then as the interview wrapped he turned the tables.

"Have you ever seen the movie Days of Thunder?" Hendrick asked smiling. Put on the spot, Kuselias did the only thing he could and enthusiastically said yes. Hendrick paused as perhaps only men like Roger Penske and Mike Helton can do. It's the kind of pause that gets your full attention very quickly.

Staring straight into the camera, Hendrick quietly said the now classic line. "You know, I'm the guy in that movie." Just like that, Kuselias was done. Exposed as a NASCAR fraud on national TV by the most powerful owner in the sport.

Fully released from the show after the 2007 season, Kuselias has been embroiled in personal and professional scandals at ESPN since that time that ultimately resulted in his suspension. ESPN should have known better than to put Kuselias and Banks in front of NASCAR fans from the start. A lot of time was wasted.

While Burr kept the show treading water, it was the arrival of Allen Bestwick, Nicole (Manske) Briscoe and Mike Massaro that pulled it back in the boat. 2008 signaled the start of an amazing recovery.

The series began to add regular studio analysts with NASCAR experience and move the Tim Cowlishaws of the world out to pasture. Marty Smith and Angelique Chengelis, who had both suffered through year one, were suddenly front and center as key reporters on NASCAR issues and breaking news.

After arriving from SPEED as a TV barbie doll, Briscoe stepped into her new ESPN role and never missed a beat. Moving out of the studio and reporting from the track, ESPN finally had the kind of versatile female anchor the network needed on the NASCAR beat.

By the time Massaro was asked to join the show in 2009, Briscoe and Bestwick had things pretty well sorted out. Bestwick had worked hard to put his personal stamp on Monday afternoons and given the series a firm foundation. He hosted countless panelists and through it all kept the kind of organized demeanor for which he is known.

Briscoe and Massaro settled into alternating studio hosting and traveling to the races. Voices like Ricky Craven, Ray Evernham and Randy LaJoie emerged as stars of the studio and favorites with the fans. Characters like DJ Copp emerged from obscurity to become important parts of the series. NASCAR Now finally had a personality amid the other vapid ESPN studio shows.

This season ESPN has already committed Shannon Spake to helping out with the show. The series still lacks a fulltime news reporter on the ground in the Concord area on the weekdays. Spake can fill that role as well as studio host as she returns from maternity leave.

Finally, the biggest NASCAR resource ESPN has in its possession has just been set free. Dr. Jerry Punch has been freed from the broadcast booth and returns to his correct role as a reporter. Letting Punch contribute to NASCAR Now may go a very long way to settling him into an assignment he should have had from the start.

With the studio line-up set, the reporters ready and the tremendous amount of storylines going into Daytona, this season may finally see NASCAR Now emerge as the kind of major daily television series ESPN envisioned back in 2007. It couldn't come at a better time.

We welcome your comments on this topic. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thank you for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.


Lou said...

you know it has been a long and winding road for NN. I have seen it grow to be better these last 3yrs. And now i am getting ready for another season of NN. I do not watch it every night. but it does seem the changes so far have made the program so much better. really looking forward to the monday round table. it is the place to be for serious discussion.

Shirley Buttacavoli said...

First of all, Dr. Jerry Punch should have NEVER been taken from pit road. His knowledge and insight belong with the teams, not in the booth.

As far as Kuselias, it was obvious he was put into a situation he was not able to fulfill. It was brutal listening to him interview reporters, drivers, owners, etc.

I kept thinking about the old ESPN when everyone on the network, knew something about every sport. If they didn't, they weren't part of the broadcast.

I watched one year as Massaro stood outside turn 4 at Daytona waiting for interviews during the ISC/NASCAR/ESPN feud. I hope he received a significant raise after that issue was resolved. He wasn’t exactly welcome at the time.

I love women who cover sports that UNDERSTAND the sport they are discussing. I appreciated Connie LeGrand on SPEED Report and hated when she was terminated. I was tentative about her replacement, Nicole Manske (Briscoe). It didn't take long to realize she belonged in the role as well. IMO, her move to ESPN was the best thing she could have done for her career. I hope that is the case.

Shannon Spake and Jamie Little, as pit reporters, were a bonus. Shannon in the studio will be as well.

My “dream team” of commentators are: Bob Varsha, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett (going to miss Peter Windsor on pit road). The no-nonsense production of the race, and their straight forward account of the events are a perfect blend.

I haven't found anyone to equal them, but it seems as though ESPN is trying. I’m looking forward to the outcome in 2010.

Johnny99 said...

Great write-up John! All of these moves have been great ones and the show has become greater as a result. I've gone from watching NASCR Now through my fingers (I remember the Days OF Thunder moment) to DVR-ing it everyday. One more suggestion - more Marty Smith & Ryan McGee together. The times they were on at the same time last year the info was good and they were also hilarious. Keep up the good work TDP!

Anonymous said...

Bestwick is THE MAN!

GinaV24 said...

I hated this show so much when it first came on that it made my teeth hurt.

Although the program's stiffness still doesn't appeal to me as much as less formal shows, the improvement has been amazing and I DVR it to watch since I'm not home by 5 p.m. when it comes on live. Allen Bestwick is one of the best in the business and since I feel like Allen doesn't "lie" to me and I like him as a broadcaster, I can use this show to catch up on the NASCAR news.

Kudos to Rick Hendrick for putting K-Useless in his place that day. I didn't see it because by then I had stopped watching the program.

FYI -- I don't watch any other ESPN programming, except for a football game or two when it happens to be on their channel and sometimes the races, although after last year, they have a ways to go if they want to get me to tune in come Indianapolis.

JohnP said...

Allen Bestwick is one of the best radio/tv personalities I can think of for Nascar. Nascar smart, funny at times, in control. I first got introduced to him at the Dover race's. We would sit, watch the race, and listen to Allen on the radio as the announcer. Then years later he switched to TV and we got hooked on TWIN.

With that said, I think ESPN is a day late and a dollar short on the daily Nascar show. Adding to that the shoddy coverage by ESPN during 2008 and 2009's Cup races. ESPN has lost it's credibility. Not Allen, but ESPN. Speed saw this. Did a quick intro for Race Hub. Speed also did a better job of covering the Rolex 24 yesterday then ESPN does for Cup. I'm refering to the last 3 hours of the Rolex 24, as that's all I could watch. 14" of snow and power out for 15hrs didn't help much in watching it.

Anonymous said...

Love the show when I can watch. Once again being on the west coast, I have to skip work or stay up all night to watch the 2pm show or the replay at 2AM. I am thankful Speed is replaying their show at a time i can watch.

Vicky D said...

Great column, John. It was so painful to watch Kuselias interview the Nascar folks but found the path to the show as we know today a happy one. Love the Monday night crowd too and am looking forward to a new race season.

Jack from PA said...

One of the best write-ups in awhile, JD. Brought back some memories with Kuselias and his joke of a NASCAR knowledge, especially with his interviews. I think it's pretty cool reading an article like this and seeing how the show has evolved, now in its 4th season. I feel they have all the tools to make this season a great one, and with Dr. Punch relieved of his booth duties, I think (and hope) we see more of him on this show, doing the reporting that fans of the sport for more than ten years came to know and love.

Daly Planet Editor said...

I hope JP comes back and shines on pit road and with his reporting for the various ESPN networks and shows. He deserves a couple of fun years after recent experience.

GinaV24 said...

I second that emotion, JD. I think all of us want to see the Dr.Punch of old bringing us the right information from pit road, I know I do.

Anonymous said...

Now if we can get FOX/SPPED to do the same. Kyle Petty replacing Spencer is a great start, but as Big Bigelow said in the Strap in Column," one down, one more to go." Kenny Wallace's goofball act has run it's course and should be replaced, I am so sick of his on air lack of style, substance and class. I know DW is under contract, but FOX could assist him in becoming better on air and certainly stop the shameless plugging.

Anonymous said...

I think with the "Good Doc" free from the booth and back to where he shines, he should host the NASCAR Now Monday roundtable when A.B. has the day off. How about that?

Wisconsin Steve said...

Just a suggestion for NASCAR Now:
Bring in Michael Waltrip, Johnny Benson, and Kenny Schrader as panelists for one of the Monday Roundtable shows this year (even if its a one-time thing). The fans would appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Benson and Schrader on the roudtable would be good, but no Waltrip. That guy has worn out his welcome with many of us.

Anonymous said...

Why don't I remember the Hendrick smackdown :(. I do however remember The King & Cousin Dale being asked how long they've known each other *giggle*

Anywho I started to like Ryan by the time he was relieved of his duties. He seems quite nice :).

Allen is and will always be da man! He could run that ship with one hand tied behind his back and both eyes closed :p.

Klueless & Banks were so EMBARRASSING! So glad they've moved on.

Richard in N.C. said...

Someone recently wrote how noticeable it was that Richard Petty was absent from RPM's media session last week in Charlotte. It is amazing how many of the giants of the sport are still around, but won't be forever. With the Hall of Fame soon opening, I sure wish EESPN would have a weekly "history" feature on N-Now with JP talking with some of the giants of the sport - say on Wednesdays.

Kenn Fong said...


I guess things must be tough at Disney because "NASCAR Now" should be in Charlotte. Doing the show out of Bristol only makes financial sense if you're a bean-counter.

"Race Hub" is going to eat "NASCAR Now's" lunch.

By the way, J.D., will the roundtable with Allen Bestwick return once the season is underway? I'm only going to follow one program all week and "Hub" rules.

West Coast Kenny
Alameda, California

Daly Planet Editor said...


ESPN told me back in 2007 that the reason they cannot build in Charlotte was two little words...High Definition.

It was too expensive to build an HD studio for a sport the network might not have after the current TV contract.

Yes: Allen Bestwick is back with the Monday roundtable next week. Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Craven as the panel.


Anonymous said...

HD is 'spensive? So is 3-D cheap or sumthin' or is it that since it'll be "shared" by all the sports (used VERY loosely) it all evens out? The CLT has sports that I'm sure could share in the HD coverage costs of a multi-functional studio. I don't watch the other things but do they have "local" CLT reporters? If not guess there's my answer :).

Anonymous said...

Erik Kuselias is a lawyer?

Please don't ever let him be my lawyer if I ever need one!

I would have to plead guilty as not to listen to him...

He gives the legal profession a bad name.

Richard in N.C. said...

I guess it makes much more sense to waste millions on a duplicative LA studio and 3-D. Building a moderate HD studio in Charlotte or piggybacking with NASCAR Media seems to me to make much more sense than wasting money on an LA studio. Oh, I forgot, NASCAR will no longer be newsworthy if EESPN is not broadcasting races so there would be no reason for EESPN to be close to the center of the sport.

Anonymous said...

I agree the NASCAR Now is the benchmark by which other shows are now judged.

That said, I thought the Feb 1 debut was awful. There was so much filler, I felt they might have been better off waiting another week.

Don't get me wrong, I love NASCAR history... but the mini-profiles of Ned Jarrett, Pearson, the King? I didn't get it. That to me was the segment you run when a guest cancels and you have a hole to fill. The 2010 season is upon us... they did right by kicking off with Mike Helton... but then there was nothing left and they went right to filler.

I mean, you had Ray Evernham make the prediction that "Hendrick Motorsports will visit victory lane many times in 2010." Ugh. Could you be a little more generic?

PammH said...

I love the looks back in the decades & the fact that they are going interactive w/twitter comments, but tonite's show actually seemed to be mostly old news. They had Pena & JL on remote, when last nite, they were LIVE on the Hub! Did like Mike referring to 70's outfit tho!

Anonymous said...

My only gripe with NN is that last season the 5pm start was often delayed or cancelled, making it hard to reliably record. Last season we recorded every showing in hopes of one being on schedule. This year we'll just try to record the first showing, and if we miss it, well, there's still Racehub.

Ritchie said...

Just saw the second night of NN. Great Show! The pacing was perfect and very professional. The guests all looked at ease during the interviews. Brendan G. was great and we got the scoop about Brad Parrot working with Brendan this season. I can't wait for the rest of the season.

JohnP said...

Richard in NC Said:

""I guess it makes much more sense to waste millions on a duplicative LA studio and 3-D. Building a moderate HD studio in Charlotte or piggybacking with NASCAR Media seems to me to make much more sense than wasting money on an LA studio.""

I could not agree more Richard. The excuse of the cost of "HD" for the reason for no Charlotte studio is mind boggling to me. As an owner of a small custom manufacturing company it's an issue we deal with weekly. How do we perform a huge job, one time? Or two? It's called leasing/renting. ESPN could of leased/rented the building and HD equipment for the length of the Nascar contract. If it got renewed. Lease/rent the building and equipment again. If not, the leases simply run out. It take no more then that. Done all the time.
Simple beginner business for projects that are not guaranteed for life. Heck, what projects are? ESPN's excuse is a total cop-out of how business is actually done.

Jonathan said...

I love Nascar now but ALREADY on its 2nd day we see them wich the time of the show???? Its was on at 5pm central time here in Chicago on Monday, but when I returned to that same tv set at 5pm tuesday Nascar Now was nowhere in sight already over. what the heck is up with that espn make up your darn minds i hate it.

Matthew said...

5pm ET is the regularly scheduled time. It was on at 6 ET on Monday because soccer was on from 3-5 ET. Then Sportsnation, which usually airs from 4-5 ET, was pushed to 5-6 ET.